Ask average jazz buffs about Cuban jazz, and odds are that what they know will seem more like history than current events. Most will have no trouble talking about the stars of the '40s and '50s, percussionists and bandleaders like Machito, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente or Mongo Santamaria. But when it comes to the younger generation -- musicians like Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval or Jesus Valdes, whose careers didn't even start until the '70s -- even the most avid jazz fans know almost nothing.
How come? Because as far as most American jazz fans know, Cuban jazz was an idea whose time came and went almost half a century ago. It began in the early '40s, when Machito and his orchestra first started to mix traditional Afro-Cuban music with be-bop. Dizzy Gillespie heard them in '43, and was immediately smitten.
By 1947, both he and Charlie Parker had joined the "Cubop' movement, recording with Machito, arranger Chico O'Farrill and percussionist Chano Pozo. Some of those recordings -- particularly Gillespie's "Manteca," "Cubana Be" and "Cubana Bop" -- still stand as jazz classics.
But the revolution promised by the Cubop partisans fizzled as the mambo craze of the '50s absorbed an entire generation of Cuban-American musicians, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz included. And when Castro's revolution closed the doors completely in 1959, the Cuban jazz movement seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth.
It hadn't really, of course. Many of the musicians who hadn't fled when Castro came in were still making music; it was just that most American listeners had no way of hearing it. As such, Cuban jazz became, for music fans, almost as prized a rarity as Cuban cigars were for smokers.
Americans got a hint of how much they were missing in 1978, when -- after the Carter administration eased relations with Cuba enough to allow for "cultural exchange" projects -- the Cuban band Irakere played the Newport jazz festival. To say the band was a sensation would be understating it considerably; the audience cheered, reviewers raved, and within months Irakere was the first Cuban group in decades to have a U.S. record deal.
It wasn't just that the band boasted some stunning soloists, including trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, alto saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and tenor saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, although that was obviously part of it. Irakere also had a terrific songbook, thanks to the brilliant work of arranger-composer Jesus Valdes.
But what most amazed American listeners was how little Irakere sounded like the Latin jazz bands they knew in New York. For one thing, Irakere had expanded the traditional mambo percussion section to include the likes of bata drums and chequere, a move that brought their music closer to the Yoruba roots of Afro-Cuban drumming. Moreover, Valdes' incredibly eclectic compositions allowed the group to incorporate such diverse elements as traditional son cadences, blistering be-bop breaks, screaming rock guitar and ancient Lucumi chants, until the playing seemed to span the length and breadth of Cuban musical tradition.
Irakere recorded two albums for Columbia before the Reagan administration slammed the door shut on U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges. Milestone licensed a couple more from a Japanese production company (all are now long out of print), but for the most part, Irakere was in such utter isolation that the only time U.S. jazz fans heard about the group was when one of its star soloists defected, as D'Rivera did in 1980, and Sandoval a decade later.
But the band kept recording, doing much of its best work for Goetz Woerner's Messidor Records. And now that the German label has signed a distribution pact with Rounder Records in America, stateside jazz fans can finally catch up on what they've been missing.
"Missa Negra" (Messidor 15972) is a good place to start. Recorded in 1986 and built around Valdes' ambitious "African Mass," it offers succinct and convincing testimony to Irakere's continued potency. This is epic jazz in the truest sense of the term; the shortest of the selections here clocks in at six minutes, and each of the four pieces performed operates on a grand scale.
"El Duke," Valdes' brash resetting of Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," conveys the elegance of Ellingtonian swing in a way that's evocative with out ever seeming derivative. Likewise, "Samba para Enrique" translates the rhythmic ideas of the samba into a musical vernacular that's neither Caribbean nor Brazilian but both. But the album's crowning glory is "Missa Negra" itself. Stretched suite-style into a series of related episodes, it not only lays bare the connections between Cuban and African music, but also leaves room for stunning performances by pianist Valdes and conga star Jorge Alfonso.